“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” —Zig Ziglar
A surfer hunting for the perfect wave can’t afford to get distracted. They might joke around with their friends in the line-up, or glance back at the crowds on the beach, but if they shift focus away from the ocean for too long, they might miss their chance.
And once they do catch that wave, their focus can’t waver. A moment of hesitation or being distracted could easily cause a rail to dig, a manoeuvre to be mistimed, a wipeout, a lost opportunity. A surfer in the tube of a wave quite literally has tunnel vision—there is nothing but the wave surrounding them and a glimpse of light at the end. The world disappears, and the surfer can only concentrate on one thing: the wave itself. There is no room for anything else. Perhaps this is why so many surfers say that the sport gives them a rush and a feeling of bliss like nothing else can—when it’s just you completely immersed in a wave, there’s no time or place for stress or negativity.
How can we apply this same kind of focus to our lives? It’s like strengthening a muscle—it takes practice. In a noisy world full of distractions, learning how to focus can be a challenge. However, mastering this skill is essential if we want to achieve both our surfing and life goals.
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The Science Behind Focus
“You don’t get results by focusing on results. You get results by focusing on the actions that produce results.” —Mike Hawkins
When someone’s attention is focused on a single task, their cognitive function is notably different than when they are distracted. Our brains can shift into different modes depending on what we need to do. When we understand what happens to our brains when we focus, we can comprehend exactly why multitasking and distractions are so detrimental to our productivity and performance.
Neurobiology of Focus
We all have two main neural circuits: one is our “default mode” circuit, which allows our minds to wander as we daydream and think aimless thoughts. The other is our attentional central executive system, which has to be fully engaged in order for someone to sustain focus. We all have a neural switch between the two systems, but when we switch tasks rapidly, it compromises this switch and prevents us from getting out of our default mode. It also diminishes overall cognitive function over time.
Essentially, our attentional central executive system can be summed up as our “anti-distraction” mode. In order to properly focus, two things need to happen: we have to direct our attention to a singular task, and we have to suppress potential distractions. We can either focus on the foreground or get lost in the background and, when it comes to attentive work, the goal is to tune out what’s going on in the background.
Companies that create apps and digital devices understand how our brains process distractions, and it’s no secret that they take advantage of this information to pull our attention towards their products as often as possible. From notifications lighting up our phones to email alerts interrupting conversations to electronic billboards blinking at us as we drive, our attention is always being fractured, and it requires energy for us to refocus. Thankfully we don’t surf with our phones. But we do, increasingly, surf with our smart watch. Hopefully we spend the majority of our session out of range of our mobile phones. Receiving text messages or calls in the line-up is wrong on many levels.
An attentional shift occurs when we redirect our attention from one object or task to another and then exert complete focus to ignore distractions, including the previous task. Processing this change and settling into the new activity takes some energy, which is why multitasking can be so damaging to overall productivity. Our attention can become spread out across a gradient of tasks, or focused on one activity like a spotlight.
Having a busy mind, just like busy ocean conditions, can impact our ability to stay present and focused on the task at hand, which is to catch and ride waves.
Philosophers on Focus
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.” —Marcus Aurelius
Despite the plethora of distractions in our modern world, and the fact that our attention spans are shorter than ever before, getting distracted from important tasks is certainly not a modern problem. In fact, several philosophers who lived centuries ago have passed down some words of wisdom in regards to the art of concentration.
It seems that no matter what topic we have questions about, Marcus Aurelius found the answers long ago. In his most famous work, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius outlined his thoughts on focus and why cultivating this ability was necessary for a life well lived. One of his personal revelations was coming to the understanding that we needed to do very few things “to live a relevant and satisfying life.” It can often feel like life is pulling us in a thousand directions at once, but by heeding the words of Marcus Aurelius and focusing on only our top priorities, we will feel more relaxed, fulfilled, and proud at the end of each day.
In ancient Japan, the samurai also worked to master their concentration. They could not afford to have their attention diverted by the slightest distractions. They brought the concept of “zanshin” to the world. When one is in this state of mind, they are content yet alert. They are conscious of their physical environment and emotional state, yet they are primarily focused on the task at hand. On a broader scale, zanshin also refers to living intentionally, approaching everything we do with a strong sense of purpose, and embracing the process required to reach a goal rather than just waiting for the end result.
I doubt there is a better example for the modern surfer than a samurai warrior. They exude mindfulness, skill, patience, decisiveness and bravery. The skillset is almost identical to that of the professional surfer.
World Religions on Focus
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” —Zen proverb
There are plenty of secular gurus and teachers who will hammer home the benefits of steady focus. However, even religious texts contain ancient teachings on the importance of concentration and mindfulness.
Naturally, the Bible encourages followers of Christianity to put Jesus Christ first, but this can also include Christ’s unique calling for each individual. For example, Christians believe that while one person may be called to to become a doctor, another might be called to become a musician. Focusing on one’s calling brings them closer to God’s purpose for their life, while distractions and temptations are often characterized as sinful in nature.
Jesus may have been the first surfer when he walked on water over 2000 years ago. Who is to say he didn’t find an appropriately shaped piece of timber upon which to hang ten when that wind swell kicked in on the Sea of Galilee.
The Islamic scholar Sheikh Baha’i was well known for his intellectual prowess—he was knowledgeable on many subjects and wrote countless books. Yet he considered himself a jack of all trades and a master of none. Why? His expertise was divided amongst many disciplines, and he never focused on one. Although he was highly admired in his community while he was alive, he admitted that he never emerged from a debate with a specialist as the victor, simply because he never honed in on one topic. In contrast to his approach to learning, several passages in the Qur’an encourage intentional and deliberate routines to establish a focused mindset, with Allah as the top priority in life.
Considering that many popular meditation techniques that are now practised around the world originated from Buddhist traditions, it’s clear that Buddhists had a lot to say about the value of focus. “Noting” is an important aspect of vipassana meditation, and the practice actually relates to the concept of zanshin. At the beginning of a meditation session, one is supposed to note their current physical and mental state, considering input from all five of their sense as well as their general mindset. This is how we begin to focus before we dive into the task at hand, go with the flow, and let go of our surroundings.
Hindu teachings also outline several different forms of meditation—in the West, we often encounter these different mindfulness techniques in modern yoga classes. In the Hindu tradition, meditation is a form of concentration that followers must practice throughout their lives in order to eventually reach enlightenment. These meditation practices include chanting mantras, specifically the sound “Om”, focusing direct attention the third eye, body scanning for chakra meditation, pranayama breathing, and trataka, which involves fixing one’s gaze on a candle, image, or symbol for an extended period of time.
Finding Your Focus
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” —Alexander Graham Bell
It’s clear that both secular philosophers and religious figures alike understood the importance of sustained focus, and in today’s world, advertisers and tech companies also know just how to pull our focus away from what we really want to pay attention to. How can we overcome these countless distractions and really figure out how to focus? Having several techniques in your personal “toolbox” depending on the situation can help you get into gear when it’s time to be productive.
Two List Strategy
The Two List Strategy was popularized by Warren Buffet, but you don’t have to be a top businessman to use this simple technique to your advantage. Start by making a list of up to twenty-five things you value or enjoy doing. Then, cross out items until you have narrowed the list down to five specific items. Make sure to eliminate anything that won’t help you succeed or feel happier and healthier in the long term. From that moment forward, this new list will be the top five priorities that you build your daily schedule around. Set aside everything else you had written down, and think about how you can structure your days to focus on these priorities.
Why does this method work? Because the truth is that at any given period of time in our lives, we really only have the mental and physical energy to give our all to a few different activities. These don’t all have to be work related. For example, your list might go something along the lines of: spending time with family and close friends, working out, achieving career goals, reading, and volunteering for a cause you care about. These may not all involve productivity, but they are still activities you would want to be fully present and focused for.
Ivy Lee Method
The Ivy Lee method is a great way to check in with yourself on your daily progress and make sure that you prepare yourself each night for a productive day ahead. Every evening, consider what you have to get done tomorrow, and make a to do list with only six things on it. List them in the order of importance, and the next day, start with item number one and work on it until it is completed. Then move on to item number two. This keeps your to do list manageable and focused on what you truly need to get done.
The Eisenhower Box technique was a productivity solution used by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Draw a square, and then divide it into four smaller boxes. Label one box “Urgent and Important,” another box “Important and Not Urgent,” another “Urgent and Not Important,” and the final box “Not Urgent or Important.” This is the perfect way to split up smaller personal tax with more pressing professional tax and stay organized in terms of your top priorities.
Surfing and the Value of Focus
“I just thought about what I really wanted to do. I want to be a pro surfer, and that’s what I’m going to do.” —Mick Fanning
To become a champion at any sport, an athlete must learn to maintain focus in scenarios where lots of distractions are always present. Whether they are training in a noisy gym with other athletes, swimming through a pool while a massive crowd looks on, or playing on a field while fans clap and cheer, they must keep their attention on their physical actions.
For surfers, this is especially true, and in order to rise to the top of the sport, a surfer must learn to focus on the way their body and board interact with the ocean. They are in constant motion on an unpredictable surface—there is no time for distraction. These surfers have become absolute masters of their sport and the art of concentration.
Mick Fanning is well known for his intense focus on his lofty goals. His achievements as a surfer are no accident. He has won the world championship title three times, and in a short animated film about his life appropriately titled The Goal, Fanning explained that when he was only sixteen years old, he wrote down a list of his five major goals and stuck it to his wall. His most ambitious dream? Win a world championship title.
Fanning and his brother, Sean, both loved surfing, and of course, they both had a competitive streak. They would surf together whenever they got the chance, and would always push each other to improve. One day, Sean was killed in a car accident, and Fanning realized that he had to completely dedicate his life to becoming the best surfer that he could be to honour his brother’s legacy. It’s safe to say that with all Fanning has accomplished, his brother would be extremely proud.
Mick knew that life was short, but if he could use the time he had to focus solely on the things he truly loved, he could succeed at whatever he tried.
Clark Little is an amazing surfer—but over the past few decades, he has poured his heart and soul into another passion as well. In fact, if you open any surf magazine, you’re likely to see a few his incredible photographs within the pages. After surfing for many years, he decided to try his hand at wave photography, and he has become one of the best at his craft. He has won plenty of awards and has been featured on the covers of countless magazines.
When Clark is shooting, he quite literally has to narrow his vision down to a single focus. And when he is focusing, the concepts of foreground and background are of utmost importance. He has to decide what he really wants to frame in the shot and how the background can complement it without overpowering it. And even in dangerous situations, he has to maintain unbreakable focus. No matter which way the waves break, he is right there with his camera, and the rest of the world outside of the frame just fades away.
“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.” —Og Mandino
Somedays, it can seem like we live in a society that has been purposefully designed to distract us—and there is a grain of truth to this line of thinking. Our attention is a currency for advertisers and brands, and everywhere we look, someone else is fighting for our attention. But if we want to live out our dreams and accomplish all of the goals on our bucket lists, we cannot afford to have our attention constantly divided by all of these countless distractions.
Regaining our ability to simply focus on one thing at a time can change our entire lives. It may not always be easy, but in the end, it’s worth the extra effort.
Bringing a clear and focused mind into the surf will help us to reach our potential as surfers. Surfing might be the antidote to a noisy world. It is the place where we can train our attention and learn to hone in on what really matters. Surfing is mindfulness. Through focus we can attain flow states and build our lives upon a foundation of joyful experience.